Serveovers: At your service
Published:  09 July, 2010

Counters have come a long way since the good old days and, come to think of it, so have the butcher's shops that use them. Flicking through old photographs shows shops with large window panes, carcases hanging outside and, in shops with a tiled interior, butchers serving on broad wooden counters with stools for customers to sit on, while they measure meat on hanging scales and use traditional tills to cash up.

Meat display was revolutionised by the advent of supermarkets from the 1970s onwards, and butchers have had to smarten their counters to compete aesthetically. Getting a counter right is crucial and companies supplying these services cannot emphasise this enough.

Any discerning customer is keen to know the history of the product they are purchasing, says Stephen Baldock of shopfitter ISA UK. Butchers and farm shops have an advantage in this respect, he adds, insomuch as they can trace their meat not only to the local farm, but the specific animal. "Counters that present the meat in prime condition, at the correct temperature, in clean and hygienic conditions, have an opportunity to grow their business."

Right environment

Baldock reckons that, if the environment is right, then the customers will come. If the product for sale is right, then the customers will come back. Not wanting to state the obvious, but if product is displayed well and looks good, then the greater the chance the customer will want to buy it. This is exactly the sentiment of Valera marketing manager Kurran Gadhvi. "When considering buying a counter or run of counters, remember this is a long-term investment. It is probably your main selling space for fresh food and needs to be fit for purpose, durable and easy to clean."

Supermarket standards in display are also expected in small retailers these days. And even at farmers' markets, sellers have to present consistently high product quality or shoppers will move on to the next stall, according to sales manager Nigel Smith for counter provider Eurocryor. "Butchers and farm shops earn loyalty by providing high product quality," he says. "Shoppers expect the display to show respect for the product. And of course, a great display sells more product."

Creative Retail Solutions (CRS) marketing director Mary Irving says counters help in a number of ways. The surroundings that the meat is presented in does affect the way it is seen, she says. A well-lit, clean, smart environment enhances the display and increases people's confidence in the quality of the meats. In the same way that you would not display a diamond ring in a cardboard box, why would you not apply the same standards with meat?

To a certain degree, the cabinets also dictate the flow of customers around the shop, she says, and can have a huge impact on maximising the use of the floor space. Having a till furthest from the entrance means people walk past all your produce and see everything that might tempt them, thus increasing impulse buys.

So the argument of a good display is obvious but there are also many technical issues butchers need to consider when getting the plastic out of the wallet.

Blow by blow

When a butcher installs the latest counter technology, one decision they have to make is whether or not to use serveovers that blow air underneath the meat to keep cool or above the meat. But which is the better technology?

The two commonly employed methods of cooling a butcher's serveover and its displayed products is gravity cooling and forced air, says CRS MD Andrew Drake. Gravity cooling uses no fans and so involves no forced air movement. This system usually employs cooling tubes fitted immediately beneath the display bed and/or an evaporator cooler at the back of the display area. Meanwhile, forced air sometimes known as ventilated uses fans to circulate chilled air around the display area.

"Both systems have advantages and disadvantages when displaying fresh meat products," Drake adds. "This is because, for unwrapped fresh meat products in a retail environment, there are two main concerns in ensuring the product remains at its best temperature and air movement. If air moves around the meat at a significant speed, natural drying will be greatly accelerated. Red meats are particularly susceptible to this drying effect. If a chilled temperature of 2-3C is not maintained consistently throughout, then meat, particularly large cuts of red meat, will lose blood, discolour and even start to 'sweat'."

Gravity cooling clearly has the slowest air movement speeds, in Drake's opinion, which limits the drying effects. Because there is little air movement, cold air collects at the bottom of the display bed and there is a significant increase in temperature above the base and towards the front of the display, so that taller products, such as larger joints, will tend to have a significantly higher temperature at the top than at the bottom. Typically, temperatures can increase by 2C for every 50mm above the display bed. "Gravity cooled systems are also very susceptible to any adverse environmental conditions, as they have no way of quickly replacing any chilled air that is displaced or loses its temperature," he says.

"In laboratory test conditions, gravity cooling will tend to show the best results for fresh meat, as temperatures are maintained reasonably consistently with minimal drying. Sadly, however, a shop is not like a test laboratory. In the real world a variety of issues affect the performance of the display. These can include: draughts in the shop causing air disturbance within the cabinet; direct sunlight from shop windows causing 'hot spots' in the cabinet; air disturbance due to merchandising and serving from the cabinet; warm products being introduced into the display area; and many other potential 'hazards' for refrigeration.

"In the real world, it is essential to have some forced air movement, so that the chilled air in the display can quickly recover its temperature. In my view, the faster recovery times are essential in a real-life retail environment, which makes a system with some forced air much more effective than one without," adds Drake.

Serveover display manufacturer XL Refrigeration feels there is no debate on this issue. Director David Holroyd says: "We do both types of normal butcher's display: static cooled and forced air. The debate is not air over or under the product. It is either a supermarket-style display with a finned evaporator below the deck, with lots of fans that blows cold air over the product, or a solid stainless steel deck that frosts up with a back coil under the rear shelf."

A butcher has to answer the following questions to find out which is best for him or her, adds Holroyd. Is he or she happy to empty and clean the display at least twice a week? If yes, the static. If not, forced air. Secondly, does he or she require high humidity or can they accept some drying out? If high humidity, then static, while if some drying is acceptable, forced air would be preferable.

Retaining humidity

To Tim Cooper of Acold/Specialist Interior Contracts, the critical factor, however, is not only that the air flows over the product, but also that the humidity level in the counter is kept high. "This can be achieved in two possible ways. The first is by having an injected humidification system which creates a 'fogging' effect. This seems to work well, but is expensive to install and maintain, as regular inspections are required due to possible water-borne bacteria. Our preference is to provide a refrigeration system that has a large cooling area and slow velocity fans. When this is correctly engineered, it can produce the required humidity levels to allow product to be left on display overnight with no drying out. This has the following advantages: a saving in time and money in the morning and evening as the counter remains full; and the prospect of increased turnover as the consumer has a complete array of products to choose from."

Even temperatures

Fan-assisted cooling is the only way to realistically achieve even temperatures throughout the display, according to ISA's Baldock. "This method also enables all of the product to be within a refrigerated environment, such as a whole chicken or joint." Baldock finds butchers often express concern that fan-assisted cooling rapidly dries out the meat cuts, causing discolouration and loss of moisture, meaning the cut weighs less when placed on the scale and looks less appetising. "Some of the multiples have invested heavily installing humidifying systems within the counter, which helps to solve the problem. This investment is considerable and also means high-cost annual maintenance," he says.

To counter this, ISA UK has designed fresh meat counters ducting chilled air both below and above the product. The air coming from below, creates a cushion of cold air in the counter, that keeps the air coming over the top of the product at a high level and not directly on the surface of the product, claims Baldock. "Test results and experience in the field have found levels of humidity significantly higher than the more traditional ventilated counters, thereby reducing the need for high-cost humidity systems."

In the blown-under/blown-over debate, Valera feels this really depends on the turnover of the product. Marketing manager Kurran Gadhvi says cold air blown above the product is the most efficient way of maintaining the correct temperature. Displaying meat and fish in a counter can also determine this decision for a butcher.

The 'cold from below' contact/static system is widely used for fresh fish sales, says Nigel Smith of Eurocryor, where the requirement is to maintain an ice-bed and there is a frequent wash-down. "For meat display, fan-assisted cooling is the best way to maintain temperature and visual presentation. It is a long-standing myth that moving air will dry out the meat."

Decision time

If getting the right cooling technology were not enough to think about, there are also many other factors that need consideration. Ultimately, the shape and design of a serveover counter must blend in with the shop, says Smith. However elaborate, its role is to present fresh meat so well, that sales go up. It should not become an overpowering feature or distraction he claims.

Deciding what you want in terms of use is also important, adds Valera's Gadhvi. "Counter runs can include flat chilled displays, refrigerated salad wells, heated sections, either wet bain-marie or dry hot plates, ambient sections with glass fronts for rear service or flat-topped for tills, scales etc, even scooping ice cream cabinets, all built into a counter run with a single design and colour. If theatre is important, special cabinets can be incorporated to hold a hot plate or induction hob. Alternatively soup kettles or rice cookers can be incorporated. Decide what you need, most things are possible."

ISA UK's Baldock adds he always advises clients to seek out best advice before making a purchase. Butchers should ask how much experience the company offering the counters has in the butchery and farm shop industry, he says, also advising butchers to speak with other clients to get their opinion of the product and its capabilities. What is the back-up support like? Are spare parts and accessories readily available? "This is a major investment for most butchers and farm shops and consideration of these factors should be important. The purchase of good-quality counters represent an investment in the business," he says.

What's new?

ISA UK: The models Wing, Dream and Sight serveover counters offer professional display counters at competitive pricing. For smaller shops with lower budgets, the model Euro offers good value for money, traditional refrigeration and under-storage as standard, together with corner units to create angled runs.

Valera: The latest model from Valera is the Columbus. This counter has a large display area and is suitable for both butchers and delicatessens. The Columbus serveover counter comes with a remote or integral condensing unit and can be multiplexed to other Columbus serveover models, such as the dry-heated bain marie, mini multideck and ambient support case. The Columbus model is also available in remote multideck and island freezer displays.

CRS: Distributed by CRS in the UK, Italian Criocabin have developed the Enixe. This has the distinctive vertical straight glass, which follows recent trends but has all the price advantages of a modular counter. The glass is supported on hydraulic pistons. Straight glass is different and eye-catching, says CRS, and it can have mid-shelves in corner sections which curved glass cannot do. The Enixe benefits from all the engineering expertise of the Criocabin cooling system in a new style of counter.

Eurocryor: Eurocryor has introduced a new modular serveover counter called Butterfly. Based on the well-known Eurocryor custom-made range with curved corners, it brings the Eurocryor style to retailers who would like a shaped layout but do not have the need for a tailored 'perfect fit'.

Case study 1

Vallum Farm Shop in Northumberland offers a range of main meals and snack items to its visitors including, among others, day trippers and hill walkers. The shop's restaurant has internal seating for 50 and a veranda that seats a further 40.

Sited in a timber lodge, the centrepiece of the restaurant is an L-shaped servery counter, supplied by local distributor Heaton's Catering. "The client wished to have a contemporary look to the servery, that was striking on the eye but fitted in with the general ambience of the building and was in keeping with the warm welcome offered to visitors," says Heaton's Gary Henry. "And this is why we went to Valera for the servery counter. Their willingness and ability to adapt products to our specific design meant we were able to offer the client exactly what they wanted."

The wide range of items, both hot and cold, served from the counter is testimony to its versatility, added Valera. The restaurant currently offers hot lunchtime main meals, as well as a variety of snack items, such as cakes, sandwiches and soups. In addition, ready meals prepared in-house and pre-packed are also displayed in the servery alongside a selection of frozen yoghurts and ice creams that are also all made in-house and packaged with the Vallum Farm logo.

The owners of the site are planning to build some villas for guests in the near future and, when this happens, a full breakfast menu will also be offered and the counter has been future-proofed to take this into account.

Case study 2

Wyndham (pictured) already operated two successful butcher's shops in West London, when it acquired new premises in the busy Chiswick High Street. The shop was formerly a sandwich and coffee shop, but has been transformed into a stylish new butcher's shop. After working closely with its client and discussing several potential options, CRS provided the refrigeration for this new shop, including a full Z-shaped butchery counter, a delicatessen and a pre-packed multideck and cold storage. Wyndham has reported to CRS that this shop has been its most successful to date and has exceeded all expectations.

CRS has also worked with Barry Fitch Butchers, established for many years in Little Eaton, Derbyshire, but when he decided to extend the building and enlarge his shop, a new run of counters was needed. CRS explored many options with Barry before arriving at the bespoke design of a flowing counter which runs for some 16m across his newly enlarged shop. The single counter run includes a fitted window display section, a fresh meat counter, specially angled corners, a delicatessen area, a pie and sweets area and, at the extreme end, a hot pie counter.

Another CRS client is Foxbury Farm in Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. Foxbury built a large new retail shop last winter and looked to expand its range of meat and fresh products significantly. CRS provided 20m of new counters across the length of the shop for fresh meat butchery, delicatessen, pies and fresh fish. Foxbury is now considered to be the leading farm shop retailer in Oxfordshire, CRS added.

Case study 3

A customer of ISA UK from 14 years earlier, Becketts approached the firm to get a quote for a major extension and refit. The brief was to provide counters for fresh meat, a delicatessen, sandwiches and salads, bakery and pre-packed fish and produce, with cabinets that incorporated the latest designs and low-energy refrigeration. The philosophy was to keep the project simple, with clean lines and colour co-ordination.

The Tasselli range of Dream serveover counters and Globe and Palco self-service multi-decks were chosen for their effective display with minimum of counter profile. In conjunction with an associated engineering company, a low-energy refrigeration pack system was designed and installed. This system was designed to give energy savings of approximately 25-30% on conventional refrigeration systems.

ISA UK was also involved in a recent installation in Partridge Green, West Sussex, for independent butcher Shaun Hutchings. Having worked with him over the past 23 years, ISA UK was approached to provide a new counter design, that enabled more products to be viewed by clients. The fully refrigerated Tasselli Dream counter with curved corners was chosen, so that the product stayed in close proximity to the main customer serving point. The cabinets had to be completely stripped down to pass through the narrow door entry, rebuilt on site, connected to remote condensing units and commissioned, with only one day's loss of trade, a Monday.